Routine, repetitive work has been stripped from the American economy. “You’d be hard pressed to find a company of any size doing accounts payable by hand,” says Andrew Longman, a vice president at management consulting firm Kepner Tregoe. Software has replaced humans who just a decade or so ago were counting inventory, taking notes, conducting clinical trials, and routing phone calls. Meanwhile, manufacturing has moved offshore — along with customer helplines. McDonald’s is even experimenting with having its drive-through orders processed through call centers. They’re in Idaho now, but may soon be in India.
So what work is left for the tens of millions of American workers?
Longman answers that question when he presents “Your Business Has Changed: Ten Things HR Managers Must Do About It” on Tuesday, May 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the New Jersey affiliate of the National Human Resources Association at the Old Orchard Manor in Eatontown. Call 732-938-2421 for more information.
Longman estimates that some 80 percent of all repetitive work has been cut out of the American economy within the past 20 years — and the pace at which the rest is going the way of the hand-typed letter is only accelerating.
“What’s left? Project-based work,” says Longman. “Each time you want to put in technology, it creates a project.” Skilled workers must come together to install and test the technology. New hardware may have to be installed. Users manuals have to be written. There needs to be training.
The new business model calls for finely honed teams, able to come together from different departments at a moment’s notice, and able to speak a common language.
Longman throws out a hypothetical to illustrate this way of doing business. “A candy company gets a call from Wal-Mart saying ‘We want a 30 ounce chocolate bunny in a green box, what can you do? Oh, and we want an answer in 24 to 48 hours — and we’re talking to three other companies.’” This candy company had better have cross functional groups of people — from legal, marketing, design, packaging, transportation, and more — ready to come up with a competitive proposal. “They have to work together to produce a display that is a win for them, for Wal-Mart, and for the customer,” he says. “In the whole retail sector, that’s how it’s done.”
The same is true in other industries. Take software, for instance. “It’s not just a product,” says Longman, “but services wrapped around it. You’re not just selling software. You’re training people, and you’re reorganizing the structure of the organization.”
The 10 key things HR managers need to manage in this environment, says Longman, are leadership, strategy, goals, business processes, team structure, information systems, issue resolution systems, human capabilities, culture and performance systems, and external factors. The list, he says, is not wholly his own, but rather has been drawn up by Kepner-Tregoe, and is based on research its founders conducted nearly 50 years ago. This research found that given the same set of information, different people come to different conclusions. “In fact,” says Longman, “the same person, shown the information at two different times, will come to different conclusions. The variability is not in the system, it’s in the person.”
Given this finding, it is not surprising that Longman singles out team structure as the most important element in the success of any project — or any company. The best teams, says Longman, hold themselves and each other accountable, and they are not afraid to confront one another when something is not going well. Each and every one of them is committed to the project. They are heading in the same direction, but are able to adapt.
“When people evaluate teams they typically look at lagging indicators,” says Longman. “They look at whether the project was on time and on budget. But when you’re late, you’re late.” He says that a good manager looks at the team way before a project is late or has defects. “If you can see good teamwork, you can be pretty sure the project will turn out well,” he says.
On teams, “people who are effective follow a common cognitive process,” says Longman. This process includes:
Making a choice. This involves weighing alternatives, but doing so is not the way to start. “You don’t think of alternatives until you think of what you want to accomplish,” says Longman. “You don’t decide between makes of cars before you establish that what you want to do is get to work.” With that fact established, the best choice might be walking, or carpooling, or even telecommuting. Be sure of the big objective before moving on to one class of solutions.
Solving a problem. “This is more forensic,” says Longman. “Something has happened. You expected the car to start, but it doesn’t.” Getting to the bottom of the problem calls for critical thinking skills.
Future thinking. “This is expecting something to happen,” says Longman, “managing risk.”
Sorting out. “In lots of situations, you don’t know if it’s a choice or what,” says Longman. “What are my threats and opportunities? It’s a sorting process. What kind of business should this be in five years? What’s the right portfolio of projects?”
Teams think in all of these arenas — and do so quickly, calling upon a common language developed during the course of other projects. Longman, who has been with Kepner Tregoe for 21 years, teaches these thinking skills to individuals, but mostly he works on them with companies.
A graduate of Northern Michigan University (Class of 1980), Longman wanted to study animal behavior and live on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he could “just throw on a backpack, cross the road, and go hiking.” Instead the Frenchtown resident, who is married to artist and craftsperson Chrysanthe Longman and is the father of three, found himself working in the Princeton area, where he had lived since he was in the seventh grade and his father, Kenneth Longman, who was in advertising, moved here to be equi-distant from Philadelphia and New York. His mother, Mary Longman, ran the University League Nursery School for many years.
Longman left Michigan when he realized that the unemployment rate in the area where he wanted to live — 35 percent — did not bode well for any chance at gainful employment. After spending time as a marketer, he went into graphic arts. One of his clients was Kepner Tregoe, an international firm with offices in Skillman and Princeton. He liked the work the company was doing, and switched his career goal from studying animal behavior to forming human behavior.
He says that, next to team formation, setting clear goals is the most important job of any organization and of every project. These goals must be understood by all, but aren’t necessarily stated overtly. “In 1963 Kennedy said we would send a man to the moon and get him back safely within 10 years,” he gives as an example. Ten billion dollars was allotted to the project, which was accomplished in eight-and-a-half-years at a cost of $19 billion.
“The project was a success,” says Longman. That is so because the real goal did not lie in the time frame or in the cost, but rather in the fact that the feat was accomplished by the United States before its Cold War rival, Russia, could pull it off. “If we had done it in five years, but Russia had beaten us,” he says, “it would have been a failure.”
No longer involved in making sure that 1,000 bolts an hour are turned on car frames or even that drive-through customer number five gets a strawberry shake rather than a chocolate shake, managers, says Longman, “now have to understand the true goal.”